It’s tough enough being in jail with its closed-in walls and dismal atmosphere, but imagine being stuck in that kind of confinement while also being pregnant? Miyhosi Benton and Maria Caraballo, two formerly incarcerated women, spoke candidly on it, as survivors, during a Huffington Post Live episode. Their revelations were not surprising in how jail conditions already scrape by as barely decent, but the once hidden details of how women inmates experience a heightened level of sexism and maltreatment when they carrying a child were harrowing to hear.
Prior to Benton and Caraballo speaking, the topic was introduced by HuffPost Live host Alyona Minkovski and the Director of the Women in Prison Project, Tamar Kraft-Stolar who advocates for women’s rights in prison. She also works closely with the Correctional Association of New York who just released a five-years in the making report about women inmates.
Kraft-Stolar explained that the experiences sometimes are no different than the tribulations of homeless women in the streets. They may technically have a roof over their heads, but that shelter is barely a home, there’s scanty beds to sleep on, a lack of good food, hardly any feminine hygiene or sanitary napkins, women inmates are regulated to humiliating procedures just to obtain a few extra ones each month. She also revealed the terrible truth that some women remain shackled before, during, and after childbirth whether by wrists, ankles and over the waist. This has been an illegal practice in New York since 2009, but has still occurred as the Correctional Association discovered.
Benton and Caraballo confirmed through their own personal stories what it was like to give birth as an inmate. Caraballo shared:
“Giving birth for me in prison was scary. I was overdue. I was [by] 42 weeks and I was taken on an outside trip to the hospital to get induced. They don’t tell you when are going to get induced. They just pick you up, tell you to get dressed, and you’re going on an outside trip. So as I get to the hospital, I get shackled on my hands and my legs. I didn’t get the waist chain.
When I got to the hospital, they took [the cuffs] off my feet and shackled one of my hands to the bed. It was like that all the way until I gave birth. When the doctor came in to check on out, they had stepped out to get the epidural, because already I was dilating. It didn’t even take a minute before the doctor stepped out of the room that I started to feel my daughter’s head. As a parent, you know when you’re ready to give birth. And I’m telling the officers, ‘I feel my daughter’s head. Get the doctor.’ And they started arguing between each other. ‘You can’t possibly feel the baby’s head.’ And the male officer was like, ‘Yes, I have kids. she can feel the baby’s head.’ And they were like arguing for like five minutes before they got the doctor and I was already giving birth. I gave birth without an epidural. Just a natural birth.”
Afterwards, she was only able to embrace her newborn daughter with one hand because her other hand was still shackled to the bed post.
Benton respectively expressed her turmoil afterwards:
For me, my traumatizing moment was when it was time for me to push, and the officers were on top of the doctors, and doctors are telling me to give them some space, and the officers are blatantly ignoring what the doctors are saying. ‘Can she have some dignity? Can you give me some space, so I can do what is necessary to deliver the baby?’ Then an officer directs a question at me like I was going to answer in his favor. And going through my mind is, ‘I’m not going to say anything that will ago against what the officer wants me to say, but I don’t want to say anything against what the doctor is saying? Obviously, the doctor has the best interest at heart for me and my baby. So I said nothing because I didn’t want to be punished when I got back to the facility.
Post-partum, Benton had fallen on the way to a doctor check-up because she was shackled by foot and wrist and “black-boxed” while carrying her baby in a car seat. It is hinted in the interview that Benton’s baby eventually passed away from trauma. Another block of worry for inmates who become mothers is whether or not they’ll be able to keep their baby during completion of their jail time.
The concern of pregnant inmates is a part of the bigger issue of reproductive and women’s rights. Caraballo and Benton are speaking up, through the guidance of Stolar, who is pregnant at press time, because of what they went through. It is a niche situation as the general public does not sympathize with prison inmates, male or female. But for women, on top of their fears of sexual assault and lack of resources such as contraceptives, nutritional meals and toiletries, when they are pregnant, the issues become illuminated by the inhumane procedures perpetuated in jail for first-time offenders. It is extremely brave of Caraballo and Benton to see beyond the pain of their experiences in wanting to become advocates for other women whose rights are being overlooked.
Please contact the Women in Prison Project to join the cause.